‘Space’ age: How two musical icons reconceived jazz in the 1960s

In a new book, Yale’s Michael E. Veal draws on the language of architecture and photography to show how John Coltrane and Miles Davis transformed modern jazz.
Michael E. Veal and the cover of his book, Living Space.

Michael E. Veal

One of the more adventurous and transformative eras in jazz happened amid the societal turbulence of the mid- to late-1960s, and Miles Davis and John Coltrane were leading the way.

In his new book “Living Space: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Free Jazz, from Analog to Digital” (Wesleyan University Press), Michael E. Veal probes deeply into just what it was the two legendary jazz musicians were doing with their music in that period and why it should be taken more seriously.

From 1964 to 1967, Coltrane journeyed away from more traditional jazz rhythms and harmonic structures, to intense experiments with what was becoming known as “free jazz,” distinguished by a metrically free style of playing. Davis, beginning in 1968, became one of the pioneers of jazz-rock fusion, in which he gradually integrated elements from popular music while also borrowing from free jazz.

Their fiercely innovative music during this time “has been by turns demonized, dismissed, deemphasized or just plain misunderstood,” Veal writes. “And while there are several reasons for this… their creativity undeniably reflected, on one hand, a new, Space Age understanding of the human, and on the other, an era of challenge to prevailing, social, political, and cultural norms.”

Veal, the Henry L. and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Music in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, explores the subject with all the sophistication of an accomplished ethnomusicologist and jazz musician, while also drawing on the discourses of architecture and photography to provide visual metaphors for the many sonic twists and turns. His previous books have focused on the Nigerian musician Fela Kuti; Tony Allen, the drummer credited with creating Afrobeat; and the musical genre “dub” that grew out of reggae.

Veal sat down with Yale News to talk about his book, which was 15 years in the making. The conversation has been condensed and edited.

A central theme in your book is “free meter” — which you define as music played without reference to an underlying beat — and how it was transformative for jazz in this period. But it also made it harder for the music to be appreciated as broadly. Why was that?

Michael E. Veal: Jazz had developed historically as a dance music, so people were used to having a steady pulse underneath for dancing. Then with the birth of modern jazz, i.e. bebop, it became more of a virtuosic art music, but it was still based around that dance rhythm. So when the musicians in the sixties decided to abandon that, it was very disorienting for the people who had come up through the history of jazz rhythm, all the way from New Orleans through the early 1960s. People like regularity, and if you disrupt that, it’s sometimes distressing. Although some people accepted and even liked it, many others felt that the so-called swing rhythm had been the essence of jazz. They felt that by abandoning swing, a lot of what the music was about was abandoned — that drive and that propulsion.

Was it less listenable?

Veal: I said in the book, you know, there’s rhythm all around us in the world. If you take a walk in the park and the wind is blowing dry leaves around, there’s no steady rhythm to that. It’s more of a random rhythm. And people find that random quality pleasing. But when it comes to jazz, everyone had been conditioned to expect that steady rhythm.

You use a mathematical term to explain the rhythmic principles of this music: curvilinearity. Would you explain how it applies?

Veal: Start with this idea of isometric pulse — in other words, a beat that is evenly spaced, like a continuous stream of eighth notes. Curvilinearity is a way of describing what happens when you break away from that steady rhythm, and the rhythm instead accelerates and decelerates, and breaks up — it feels fragmented at times, and other times it feels flowing. The rhythm is morphing through all these different states. Curvilinearity is a term from topology. It’s a way to narrate this rhythmically irregular environment while still understanding the performance as a whole as something that’s unified. It’s a continuous phenomenon, but it’s curving through all these different rhythmic states. The term curvilinearity allows us to narrate all those changes as continuous.

The Heydar Aliyev Center, in Baku, Azerbaijan
This photo of the Heydar Aliyev Center, in Baku, Azerbaijan, appears in the book as an apt visual expression of curvilinearity. (Zaha Hadid, Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan (2012). Licensed by Adobe Stock.)

You cite a number of social influences on the new jazz, including the beginning of the Space Age, the civil rights and Black power movements, and the psychedelic era. Did all those things together create a kind of perfect storm to fuel Black jazz genius?

Veal: Yes, I think they did. The ’60s was the time of utopian thinking, and musicians and other artists and people in general were taking chances and going way out there in terms of thinking about the options for how society could be different. It was an open-ended, experimental, adventurous time. So really what we’re talking about is the manifestation of that way of thinking in modern jazz.

Coltrane is believed to have been experimenting with LSD toward the end of his life. You compared the effects of psychedelics on rock music of the time with Coltrane’s late music and found some similarities. Would you give an example?

Veal: I drew some comparisons with musicians like the Beatles, who started out playing Chuck Berry and Little Richard covers, and the next thing you know, they're creating these really trippy psychedelic pieces like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.” Their vision for what their creativity could be expanded exponentially in a comparatively short period of time. In the jazz context, one could observe that the same thing happened with Coltrane. The changes and development in his music started to accelerate. It happened within a period of months. He totally reconfigured and reconceived his ideas about jazz and what it should do and how it should sound. The post-1980 discourses around jazz are very sanitized and generally conservative, and no one wants to deal with that aspect of Coltrane. But I think it’s part of the puzzle.

Betty Davis was a singer, songwriter, and model who was briefly married to Miles Davis. You argue that she was critical to his innovative period of jazz-rock fusion. How so?

Veal: Miles would have been in his early to mid-40s in 1968 when he met Betty. The type of jazz he’d been playing with his Second Quintet was brilliant, very influential, but also very cerebral and the explosion of popular music at that time had rendered jazz to a kind of footnote status in the music industry and in the culture. This hadn’t been the case even 10 years earlier. But now there were so many amazing things going on in the spirit of popular music with James Brown, Motown, Stax-Volt, you know, all the bands coming from England, not to mention Jimi Hendrix, who was a big influence upon Miles, and Sly & the Family Stone. The jazz musicians were trying to figure out how to stay relevant. Betty Davis was someone who was plugged into that whole network. She was friends with Jimi Hendrix. She was friends with Sly Stone. She introduced Miles to some of those musicians. He and Hendrix had a dialogue going. They never officially played or recorded together, but they would hang out and talk ideas and play a little bit between them.

So Betty was very important in helping Miles transform his music in a way that wasn’t just base and commercial, but was innovative and in some ways very experimental.

Did she have commercial success as a singer/songwriter herself?

Veal: Not at the time her music was released. But her albums became very influential over the long run and retroactively, she’s been hailed as an icon for the type of music that she made.

You grew up in South Queens in the ’60s and ’70s, a section of New York that you describe as “a hotbed of music” at the time. How did the various kinds of music that were in the air all around you inform your understanding of and appreciation for jazz?

Veal: Jazz was just one of the types of music that were prominent in the atmosphere. There was funk, soul, R&B. And there was so-called “Latin” music, like the old-school salsa music. And then there was the rock music of the ’70s, and then later the early rap music and hip hop. All of that stuff was around, and I was soaking it all up.

It took me 40 or 50 years of life experience to synthesize it all into a coherent vision in the way that I articulated in the book. Whereas back then it was more a question of musical code switching — moving from musical compartment to musical compartment. It still is, in a way, because people still abide by some of those genre boundaries. But when you write a book you’re not playing music, you’re writing about it. You can pull things together on the page in a way that would be difficult to do in the moment of performance. Some of my thinking in the book goes back decades, but I had to develop as a thinker and a scholar and a writer and a musician to be able to articulate it convincingly.

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